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Distortions and Dilemmas in the Performative System of International Development Aid1

Distorsions et dilemmes du système performatif de l’aide internationale au développement
Distorsiones y dilemas del sistema performativo de la ayuda internacional para el desarrollo
Anne Le Naëlou, Elisabeth Hofmann et Larissa Kojoué
p. 131-157


Entre ambitions croissantes attribuées à l’aide internationale et ressources limitées pour les réaliser, les injonctions normatives et performatives, répétées par les bailleurs et les organisations internationales, n’ont jamais été aussi prégnantes. Les dilemmes posés par la mise en œuvre, souvent assidue, de ces prescriptions par les différents acteurs de l’aide internationale n’en restent pas moins cornéliens. L’adaptation aux normes entraîne une harmonisation, une technicisation et une automatisation des procédures et des pratiques professionnelles. Dans le même temps, chaque acteur cherche à faire ressortir une spécificité, une capacité à innover dans un contexte particulièrement concurrentiel. Malgré des critiques sans cesse renouvelées, et les distorsions dont il fait l’objet, le modèle du système de l’aide internationale, étudié ici sous l’angle d’une sociologie politique, paraît loin de s’essouffler.

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  • 1 This article has been published in French as an introduction to Volume No. 241 of the Revue Intern (...)
  • 2 International organisation, government, non-governmental organisation (NGO), corporation or consul (...)
  • 3 The formulation of clear goals and targets, responsibility for delivering on them and acceptance o (...)

1Today, in the development field and its aid and international solidarity sub-sector, no actor, institutional and/or individual,2 appears to be able to escape questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of their actions. Some of the factors underlying the tension constantly weighing on the sector’s actors concern communicating about activities, explaining the meaning of the commitments, (re)assuring donors and funders of their technical and financial soundness, reporting on the use of the resources entrusted to them, and establishing the appropriateness of the objectives, choices made and actions taken for the international aid and solidarity recipient countries and populations. It is hence the very legitimacy of their professional position that is in question. Yet the answer to the question of legitimacy is not found solely in the individuals’ experience or sense of legitimacy, but in the rules and standards that shape their actions (Guéguen, 2014). Consequently, care and attention is required at all times to ensure that conduct and actions are aligned and consistent with the rules laid down by donors (Dann & Sattelberger, 2015).3 At the same time, the individuals themselves also question their own legitimacy in their work.

2The repeated demand to standardise conduct and actions is exacerbated by the realities of aid intervention environments undergoing sweeping changes. In the face of budget constraints, local officials and their populations are demanding that their governments deliver tangible development outcomes and guarantee greater transparency in the management of international aid. Slow democratisation together with tense socioeconomic and environmental situations and growing access to the press and social media in developing countries are driving young people, who are better educated and more emancipated from the established orders, to call for a real improvement in their standard of living.

3Meeting these demands proves an arduous task for all involved. A number of reasons for this immediately come to mind. The fact that development is a long-term iterative process involving advances and setbacks makes it hard to monitor the results of the aid sector, itself dependent on many factors associated as much with the donors as with the particularities of conditions on the ground. The number of and turnover in protagonists working in development at different levels in a given country or region complicates the interpretation of the particular effects of each actor’s interventions. Also of note are the blows dealt by certain analyses critical of international aid for its poor impact on development or for its dysfunctions, not to mention the activists openly opposed to the system. All of these elements are now in the exacting public eye, which in turn tends to call the aid model into question.

  • 4 A participant asks, “Do we make aid more effective for the end recipient by adopting new ways of d (...)

4Lastly, competition is increasing among aid actors as financial resources fail to keep up with the ever-growing list of stated aims for development aid. The weight of these belaboured demands, partially internalised by the aid actors, is felt today due to systematic reference to the institutional action framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the repetition of the themes studied to create this massively used common benchmark (Smouts, 1997) supposed to guarantee “quality” international aid. Although the shape of this ambition remains largely vague, the international aid system is, in some way, united behind a shared, imposed “results-based” quest in which all the actors are taking part. Although fiercely debated by those involved (Brunel, 2008; Brauman, 2000), the strength of the standards governing this sector and the continuous adjustment of its professional and social practices clearly point to the fact that far from losing momentum, “the aid model is in very good shape” (Darbon, 2018).4

5This article combines economic, political and social science insights to reach beyond the assessment of the consequences of the modernisation process and the spread of managerial models on the international aid scene. To start with, it advocates taking a step back from the issues, expressions and concepts directly borrowed from the institutional aid field and used as self-evident: efficiency, effectiveness, performance, results, participation, governance, upskilling, etc. As a language largely imposed by the major international organisations, these terms embody a normative dimension and even serve to conceal it (Pestre, 2014). Taking this critical approach, the article then discusses the drivers of the aid sector’s structural ambiguities, pointing up the political dimension of the changes and distortions impacting on the actors and setting them within broader contextual and institutional developments. The concerns associated with the actors’ professions, skills, careers and forms of engagement offer insight into the determinants of a system consolidated, despite its tensions, by the demand for performance. Since, after industry and the world of sport, the race for performance – in the sense of the sociology of organisations (Ehrenberg, 1991; Heilbrunn, 2004) – is taking hold in international aid.

  • 5 New Public Management is a form of public management based, among others, on a results-based cultu (...)

6The transformations underway are all forms of institutionalised responses to this demand that concerns all the areas of action. The adjustments are essentially driven by changes in the external context surrounding international aid, with which the actors need to come to terms if they are not to find themselves excluded from the system. Trade-offs have to be made daily between options that can prove contradictory: meet bid criteria or not; adhere to or circumvent ever-stricter New Public Management procedures5 (Doligez, 2020), especially the financial procedures; manage or fail to offset the drop in public funds or their reallocation to emerging countries; increase or reduce flows of private funds; implement or remain critical of the SDGs; maintain or refuse access to an insecure intervention territory; send emergency aid or not; take on board technological progress or not; put up with the risks of instrumentalisation or find ways to prevent them; appeal or not to public opinion swamped by information overload, etc.

  • 6 These statuses, especially that of voluntary worker (called “volontaire” in French, this status is (...)

7The changes observed also concern internal challenges faced by the structures. Here again, choices are complex: support or minimise staff turnover; prevent physical, emotional and mental burnout at work or accept it as collateral damage; tolerate or resist administrative and financial pressure; develop decision-making vertically and/or collectively; design and update measurements of aid “quality” and project impacts in accordance with the actor’s own political vision or align with standards; and launch or postpone wage and contract negotiations with staff, including those in the least secure positions (interns, civic service workers, voluntary workers,6 volunteers, and all kinds of service providers from consulting firm staff to freelancers). Note that the diversification of statuses midway between employee and volunteer found widely in the aid sector is also in itself an indicator of the permanent tension in these spheres.

  • 7 Employees, freelancers, consultants/experts, interns, voluntary workers and volunteers, and expatr (...)

8The term “actor” is used here in a broad sense to cover the development aid sector’s interdependent, hierarchised groups and institutions in their different forms, each with their own history and trajectory: “classic” public operators and donors (national and international, local and regional government bodies, etc.); non-governmental development and emergency assistance organisations (NGOs) with their different statuses, purposes and business models; and newcomers generally from the private sector (social business, social and solidarity-based economy, business foundations, etc.). The term also refers to individuals working in the formal international cooperation entities and those engaging in international solidarity initiatives individually or in small groups.7 Note that the scope of this analysis is restricted to actors who are usually in the development aid and emergency aid sectors. The article does not cover the civilian and military security sectors which, although concerned by the issues explored here, present specific features that warrant an entirely separate discussion.

9Without rewriting a history of international aid, a sub-field of development that historically formed in the post-colonial period and has been studied for over 60 years (Rist, 2013; Swiss & Brown, 2015), two angles can be singled out since the end of the modernisation theories of the 1970s to analyse the transformations that have marked this field. These are followed by an outline of four types of challenges facing international aid actors.

1. The “Development Factory” Put to the Test

10International aid can usefully be seen as a field of instructions and standards, a set of actions and practices, and a transactional arena (Petiteville & Placidi-Frot, 2013; Olivier de Sardan, 2001) involving different actors and institutions engaged since the end of the colonial era in a shared way of working: the “development factory”. We focus here on two analytical approaches to this action framework.

1.1. Time of Uncertainty

  • 8 European Union, United States and Japan.

11In 1997, with a title deemed provocative at the time, the Revue Tiers Monde issue on “International Cooperation: The Time of Uncertainty” broke with the post-colonial decades and developed a number of analyses on the changes in aid and cooperation bodies. In addition to the challenges to be taken up by the major national and regional blocs8 (Katsumata, 1997; Lancaster, 1997), attention focused on the effects of liberal reform on the United Nations system (Marchesin, 1997; Blacque-Belair & Loup, 1997).

12These articles took an essentially macro-institutional analytical angle to capture the changes in international aid in order to point up the interactions between the major institutional aid actors. At the time, the sector was considered to be floundering and with a highly uncertain future due to the transformation of the nation-state and bilateral cooperation policies, the principle of subsidiarity in favour of the major regional bodies (European Union) and subnational bodies (decentralised cooperation by local and regional authorities), and the introduction of sub-contracting systems with Western and national business (consulting firms) and associations (NGOs). On the premise of participation and a principle of privatisation, NGOs and associations suddenly found themselves driven by these classic aid donors (governments, United Nations, World Bank Group, European Union and the major regional banks) to play a role of large-scale service provider financed by ad-hoc funds (Guichaoua, 1997).

  • 9 For example, Coordination Sud.
  • 10 For example, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes International Cooperation Support Network (RESACOOP) and the (...)

13Also in the late 1990s, following an accelerated professionalisation process, attention turned to structuring professions and professional practices dedicated to this modernisation. In this streamlining process of all sectors, it was vital to stand out, especially in terms of inventing and testing so-called innovative measures (Dubar & Tripier, 1998). With an academic analysis unavailable at the time for the development aid sector, the structuring of NGOs and development associations into national9 and sub-national10 networks helped their members to identify their modernisation needs and take the appropriate technical training measures. At the same time, two types of interventions – one “development” and the other “emergency aid” – were identified as structuring the NGOs’ international division of labour for the decade to come (Ryfman, 2008), albeit not without its ambiguities (Jean, 1997).

1.2. Actor Concerns

14Less than ten years later, in 2004, the same Revue Tiers Monde published an issue on “NGOs: the traps of professionalization?”. This issue covered another approach concerning many sectors (Weidner & Kulick, 2000). It questioned the outcomes of the accelerated professionalisation of the international development aid sector launched 15 years earlier. The analyses were concerned not so much with the macro reorganisation as with the perceptions and reactions of the actors expressing their feelings about the transformations experienced or endured more or less consciously (Perroulaz, 2004).

15Alongside analyses of the long-term history of the aid institutions (Barnett, 2011; Ryfman, 2008), particularly contemporary humanitarian organisations (Brodiez, 2006), came socio-anthropological studies (Atlani-Duault & Vidal, 2009) focusing on the aid actors’ itineraries and the approaches and tensions associated with their professionalisation (Dauvin & Siméant, 2002; Le Naëlou & Freyss, 2004; Fechter & Hindman, 2011; Mosse, 2011). Lastly, the figure emerged of the development broker (Bierschenk et al. 2000; Lewis, 2006) interacting with aid actors in arenas of negotiation. All these studies have clearly developed our understanding of how aid “reception” works, which cannot be addressed from a purely technical angle. Partial adoption, circumvention and even resistance are not only inevitable, but part and parcel of all implementation contexts.

16In recent years, the focus on shifts and changes in the international aid sector has been hybrid. The macro approach continues to point up the question marks over aid raised by analyses of policy inconsistencies (Coscia et al. 2018) and the effects of other models emanating from emerging countries turned official development assistance (ODA) donors, together with the impacts of the new forms of humanitarian action (Manset et al., 2017). Meeting the SDGs calls for more forms of funding and much-needed access to global public goods, especially in terms of public health and education, but also solutions to offset or slow the effects of climate change. The sector clearly faces an upscaling challenge, in both time and space, due to large-scale and often interlinked phenomena (HIV pandemic, Ebola, migration and global warming), about which there is no telling what damaging interactions there might be, especially since they concern high-risk and high-vulnerability environments (crisis and conflict). Similarly, the huge financial sums raised following natural disasters (such as the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake) evidence, if any were needed, how the coordination of international aid remains an immense challenge (Martel, 2014).

17At the same time, the in-depth socio-anthropological analysis has been consolidated (Fresia & Lavigne Delville, 2018), demonstrating the effects of these changing contexts on professional and social practices. Insecurity on the ground (now a key concern), giving rise to dedicated units in many organisations today, combines with the realisation of the enormity of the actions to be taken on the ground alone. Aid organisations now openly criticise the lack of political will to act by governments and leading donors. Likewise, this criticism is voiced by the practitioners themselves who are finding it increasingly difficult to work in countries where, for years, national institutional intermediaries have chosen to privatise their activity (Hibou, 2012) and where local liaison agents are lacking. The populist and/or authoritarian regimes that have emerged in many classic aid fields have made both national and international civil society players’ living and working conditions worse.

  • 11 For example, from 2001 to 2011, the France Volontaires association gathered accounts from 9,615 in (...)
  • 12 Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disast (...)

18There has been an increase in media coverage of accounts and feedback from practitioners working at all sorts of international aid levels. Organisations have arranged to have support measures put in place for returning expatriate workers,11 whereby actors can share the burden of what they see as harsh working conditions together with their concerns about the point of aid itself. There has also been a focus on the ethical considerations of interventions, one of the clearest symptoms of which appears to be the growing attention paid to the concept of “resilience”, defined as the capacity of a population, system, society or individual exposed to shocks to adapt to, if not change its living environment, even if the latter takes somewhat of a back seat.12 In terms of the sweeping craze it has triggered and its stated ambition, “resilience” appears to have been instrumental in placing a strain on all sector players: they realise that despite the recommendations to act in an appropriate, sustainable and ethical – as well as effective – manner, the emphasis is more on aid promoting adaptation to imposed change than acting on its actual causes.

  • 13 See, for example, De Montjou (2018).

19Lastly, since the early 2000s, a number of international aid scandals (the 2007 Zoé’s Ark controversy and exposure of sexual abuse by aid personnel in several organisations) have hit the headlines.13 These transgressions in the aid world have dulled the confidence of donors, recipients and professionals alike. Doubt about the reality of the positive actions taken combines with questions as to the point of the action put by aid actors themselves, sometimes destabilised by the demands for constant change. This perceptible disarray is aggravated by the fact that what was believed to be the shared bedrock of accrued values and expertise is no longer necessarily the case. This is one of the explanatory factors for the dysfunctions of a rapidly changing aid sector.

2. Growing Ambitions with Limited Resources

20As development aid ambitions constantly grow,14 the more or less formal relations between different actors harden when financial resources lack. For example, the 162.17 billion dollars in global official development assistance for 202015 – still below UN targets – just about keep going an entire chain of actors engaged in different international development and emergency cooperation activities. Competition for access to these funds, via competitive bids, is the rule. The downturn in public funds for development aid appears to be irreversible in the coming years (Azoulay, 2011). It forms one of the 21st century’s major turning points in international aid and affects actors in different ways.

21The agendas of the major international events over the last ten years reflect the growing attention paid to increasing these funds by working to attract, or at least rechannel, part of the 1,400 billion dollars in foreign direct investment (FDI) (UNCTAD, 2018) to development programmes and projects geared to the priorities of the countries “under assistance”.

22More generally, financing for global public policies to preserve the global public goods set out in the SDGs stimulates innovative financing mechanisms (IFMs), which are receiving more attention in political and academic circles (Jones, 2010). These financing models differ from the traditional official development assistance system, based on relations between donor and recipient country governments. They go hand in hand with an upheaval in the international aid architecture in the form of increasing intervention by private players (family and/or business foundations, diaspora networks, etc.). Although little is as yet known about the contribution made by these new donors, due mainly to their broad heterogeneity (Najim et al., 2003), they use advantageous tax measures to consolidate their own forms of financing (government subsidies, fundraising, business profits and charity funds) in order to engage in development cooperation and influence its agenda (Carbonnier & Sumner, 2012).

  • 16 For example, ASSO (Action des Salarié-e-s du Secteur Associatif), created in 2010, is a union affi (...)

23At the individual level, the obligation for each professional to raise funds to cover the cost of their wages has become an occupation in itself, which does not sit comfortably with the objectives of engagement. And working in international solidarity is gradually turning into a profession like any other. Workplaces therefore find themselves having to constantly (re)galvanise their human resources working in questionable conditions. With high employee and volunteer turnover in head offices, the bodies (NGOs, consulting firms, International Red Cross, etc.) are confronted with increasing demands from staff who want a more decent livelihood in the aid professions following long years of training. This is why the aid scene is gradually becoming unionised.16

  • 17 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Committee of the Red Cros (...)

24Tensions are also very real in the different countries of intervention. National professionals’ greater skillsets (experienced local managers who have worked in project coordination positions for years, public service managers working, sometimes as a second job, in international aid sectors and circulating among different types of actors – Charton, 2015) are driving expectations in terms of jobs and responsibilities. Granted, the employment of national staff is nothing new,17 but it is not necessarily found at all levels or to the same extents. Moreover, international political sociology and the sociology of careers of staff working in leading aid institutions have already shown just how conducive social mechanisms are to the formation of elites, pointing up in particular their transnational nature (Dezalay et al., 2015). In other words, managers in so-called “Southern” countries have long understood the potential offered by the international aid structure. The large-scale proactive nationalisation of managers, in particular by certain NGOs in emergency aid sectors, in countries of renowned insecurity appears to be a more recent practice. Made at the juncture of different motives and needs, these changes affect the distribution of power and are not without their effects on the institution’s trajectory (Joxe, 2020).

  • 18 This study explores in detail the realities of a volunteer outreach programme set up by UNHCR Leba (...)

25Young, and often graduates, the new generation of national professional actors demand better career opportunities in all sectors, including in international cooperation. This demand is fuelled by an aspiration to attain decision-making positions and levels of remuneration comparable with their expatriate colleagues. Yet, even in cases of proactive nationalisation, no in-depth analysis has as yet been made of the material and financial conditions of jobs filled in this way: it would appear that established models of domination still tend to surface in these settings (Ségalini, 2015; Drif, 201818).

26These questions regarding the employment of national profiles are not unrelated to another recent debate on the “localisation of aid”. Presented as a solution to make the best use of donor funds, increasingly delegate initiatives to local actors and, thereby, set the stage to hand over to national expertise, localisation of aid is nonetheless the subject of debate (Coordination Sud, 2019; Manis, 2018). What is being challenged by these debates and moves is the entire international division of aid labour established between the Global North and the Global South for six decades and expressed at the level of the professional structures as a division between the decision-making power of Western expatriate personnel and the decision-making power of national personnel.

3. Constraints and Opportunities of Sustainable Development

27Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1995, another credo has gained traction with the notion of sustainable development, which advocates a balance between economy, environment and the social dimension. Despite being criticised (Latouche, 2003; Theys, 2014) as an oxymoron set within the liberal economics model, this frame has raised “sustainability” to the rank of key criterion for all activities funded by international aid.

28In terms of its dictionary definition, sustainable development makes plain common sense. Who would dispute the benefits of prioritising, in international solidarity as in other areas, choices and methods that work better and are environmentally friendly? Following the recommendations made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, international donors and governments promote the effectiveness of cooperation and, by extension, all funded international solidarity actions (Doucouliagos & Paldam, 2009; Guillaumont & Wagner, 2013). Aside from the neoliberal sense of the term found in a cost-benefit calculation, the concept of “effectiveness” has no intrinsic meaning in terms of quality of development. It takes on meaning and substance only from the range of different goals set by the aid actors in all their diversity. The boom in this reasoning is part of a broader-based movement: the deployment of quantification rationality (Desrosières, 2008). To this end, the transition to the SDGs brings with it a requirement to diversify professional practices and ways of steering activities by calling – supreme irony – on the populations’ “participation”, commitment (often including financial) and duty to adapt. The imposed exercise to implement a systemic development approach, moreover defined as universal across regions hitherto differentiated as “North” and “South”, channels through a prescriptive agenda voiced by international conferences, academic events, workshops, etc. The terms of reference for bids make sustainable development a funding condition and direct the different actors to re-orientate their activities and actively engage in designing, testing and then standardising so-called “participatory” governance mechanisms. In addition to addressing considerations tabled as universal priorities (such as gender and climate change), there is a requirement to seek ever-more refined methodologies henceforth co-constructed with the stakeholders.

  • 19 Change-based approaches are a set of tools and methods used to plan, monitor and evaluate actions (...)
  • 20 Excerpt from the address by the President of RADSI Nouvelle-Aquitaine, International Conference Pr (...)
  • 21 Ibid, p. 11.

29In response, and without dropping the classic “logical framework” approach of the 1990s (Giovalucchi & Olivier de Sardan, 2009) still massively used today, more qualitative change-based approaches19 have been launched and tested by aid actors. The objective in making mechanisms people-(re)centred is to, “no longer focus on the actions, but on the actors as the basis for a sustainable social change. This switches the angle: starting from the finishing point to look at the starting point.”20 One of the problems expressed by the actors who advocate this approach concerns having to reconcile it with the more rigid and now-routine established project approach, which remains a must for donors. “We have to combine classic monitoring and evaluation mechanisms with these change-oriented approaches,”21 complained a manager of the association of French Farmers for International Development (AFDI). Although time-consuming, the implementation of these approaches calls for critical thinking on professional practices and, more generally, the aid model, which can paradoxically destabilise the actors involved.

  • 22 In France, the imminent entry into force of the Action Plan for Business Growth and Transformation (...)

30Still on the subject of prescriptive effects, aid actors are also encouraged in the name of “economic diplomacy” (Revel, 2011) to forge partnerships with the abovementioned private players whose methodologies, agendas and objectives remain vague. It is a tricky exercise, since the power relations are so imbalanced (Elbers & Arts, 2011; Johansson et al., 2010; Krätli et al., 2014). Far from stabilising, their interventions are increasing with initiatives associated with corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the brand new social enterprise status.22 Today, these actors are able to leverage considerable sources of financing (Doucin, 2011; Tallio, 2017) and even go so far as to change the course of projects and destabilise the traditional donors’ powers (Tinturier, 2020).

4. Command of Procedures and Inside Knowledge: the (Hidden) Agenda of Performance?

31In this prescriptive context, a command of administrative, management and financial procedures rounded out by in-depth knowledge of the different donors and their mandates together with a monopoly on expertise become competitive advantages and distinctive markers for the aid actors.

32Actors are encouraged to continuously modernise their organisations in order to speed up their integration into the aid market and facilitate access to larger sums of financing. Modernisation concerns programming (field activities) and, in keeping with private sector thinking, internal management.

  • 23 Such as practised by the European Commission for DEVCO (International Cooperation and Development) (...)
  • 24 NGO ENDA Europe went bankrupt in 2017.

33As in the business sector, the international aid scene regularly employs concentration strategies, which have developed in favour of the most well-known “brands” (Quéinnec, 2012). Grouping strategies by thematic lots,23 or consortia, are often encouraged by international aid donors to access funds, forcing actors to forge alliances that are expedient, but complicated to manage in practice. Large NGOs, especially emergency aid NGOs, with greater communication capacities dominate in these practices. The smaller structures, or those that opt in house for other priorities than communication, are often disregarded and many of them have to close down.24

34Access to larger amounts of financing steps up the need to report on administrative and financial operations. Practitioners thereby feel increasingly keenly the tension between placing the priority on standardisation and technification, by adopting managerial and financial management tools, and placing it on means that can identify the real effects of the activities conducted in the countries and with the populations (Le Naëlou, 2013).

35Although a number of structures have certainly made efforts to develop innovations in terms of quality approach (Nuñez Regueiro, 2020) and knowledge management, working far upstream with donors (Enten, 2020), their results are less certain. Many redesigned and refashioned tools and mechanisms still struggle to capture the real effects of projects on the ground. In addition to the unquestionably necessary input control (how aid is spent), aid actors concerned to report to their members and discerning public opinion now want “output impact” controls. Even though alternatives conducive to more qualitative approaches exist, such approaches are all too often fragmentary for want of time.

  • 25 In 2017, for example, Centre Bioforce Afrique was opened in Dakar by the parent company in Lyon.

36Lastly, the international aid scene is instrumental in controlling inside technical knowledge and skills, which alone warrants further research. In what could be called an aid training market, prominent private bodies working with the support of leading international aid donors readily outsource technical training courses for national managers that were previously taught in Europe,25 thereby competing with the potential emergence of a competitive local supply.

37Even when the decision is made to align with normative standards, the distinction between development actors and emergency actors’ timeframes remains effective.

5. Unresolved Distortions: Scales and Contexts

  • 26 Dubbed the “humanitarian-development nexus”, this vision, reactivated by the 2016 World Humanitari (...)
  • 27 Among others, the articles in: “International development aid actors, norms, and practices”, Revue (...)

38The international conferences and summits held by and for the aid world, especially those following the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, have authoritatively declared an end to the distinction between the short-term and the long-term and, thereby, the need for the actors involved to share the same objectives.26 Contrary to these declarations, recent publications27 illustrate how these two perceptions of time constitute action frameworks in their own right that only partially overlap.

39The emergency assistance structures, which hit the aid scene at the turn of the 1990s in the name of the humanitarian cause with missions bound in time and space, have since extended their reach to the rehabilitation stage and interventions in latent crisis situations. They have therefore found themselves having to take into account the question of the sustainability of the projects and programmes conducted, often cross-cutting areas of thinking and practice already largely covered by the development practitioners.

40Working against the clock using emergency aid measures (Brémond et al., 2002) is characteristic of specific ideological and action frameworks that leave little time for thinking and analysis (Fassin, 2010); automatic “protocols” are supposed to help professionals offset the effects of the short time frame (Laïdi, 2000; Aubert, 2003) and take action fast. Yet two visions of social change coexist, which sometimes overlap and can even be contradictory. Such is the case with analyses of interactions between development aid projects and local societies. Where activities are conducted over a longer time period, mid-term changes to project activities are addressed in terms of process, tending to play down the changes of course imposed by local actors. The bodies specialised in emergency actions in particular situations (natural disaster, high- or low-intensity armed conflict, etc.) blame resistance to change, if not misappropriation and even corruption, for failure to meet objectives. A large number of emergency missions are conducted in “Southern” countries, whose institutions (legal, economic and public) are often corrupt (Trannin, 2005). Agencies then tend to have less confidence in the legal system of the recipient country. On top of these commonplace – and well-established – perceptions of dysfunctional governments and local institutional actors come the impacts of the militarisation of intervention settings on emergency aid actors (Pérouse de Montclos, 2020). These actors are cornered, when they have to choose between the imperative to act – even if they have to ally with armed actors to reach the target populations – and the legitimacy of doing so. Given that emergency aid works somewhat in the dark, i.e. without necessarily having any prior knowledge of the situations and social actors, it draws its legitimacy from a humanitarian ethic firmly stamped with “medical deontology”; immediate action is enough in itself and takes precedence over any other economic or societal consideration. Political engagement is supplanted by the humanitarian motive, which explains, justifies and moralises the action. This probably plays down the questions of the longer-term ownership of the actions (Terry, 2002).

41Lastly, note that growing intervention in crisis and post-conflict situations in countries whose sovereignty is challenged leads the different operators (NGOs, consulting firms, and local and regional authorities) to more frequently delegate international humanitarian missions to national actors and manage operations remotely, using the possibilities offered by the new digital economy (videoconferencing, Skype, etc.). Delegation also provides opportunities to test and standardise new measures such as national humanitarian corridors (Ngombe, 2020) and biometric identification (Macias, 2018; Dalberto Awaengo & Banégas, 2018). Yet as well as these forms of delegation may work, they undercut fundamental rights as the reference on which the aid actors’ legitimacy should be based.

42In addition to their share of contradictions, they bring increasing legalisation – defined as a move to law and legal solutions (Hagan & Levi, 2007; Goldstein et al., 2000) – if not justicialisation (proliferation of judicial mechanisms and increased court intervention). This calls for often-expensive experts to be brought on board. Moreover – as is the case with independence – asserted and belaboured impartiality and humanitarian neutrality no longer act as a guardian for assistance interventions and no longer protect. Professionals, including national personnel, are becoming targets of individuals with no regard for international humanitarian law (ICRC, 2015), thereby adding to the general pressure on the international aid sector. Last but not least, moves made by Northern actors to strengthen their national partners’ autonomy by withdrawing from countries under assistance do not prevent resentment on the part of those partners, who see the “withdrawal of the aid” as an end to what had become a structural resource with its rent effects (Magrin, 2013).


43The combination of the elements discussed in this article explains the instability faced by aid actors today. Called upon to adapt, anticipate and endure - and sometimes even resist – in what effectively operates as a market, the professional structures and their agents constantly undertake and are subjected to all sorts of transformations (organisational, ideological, professional, methodological, technical, etc.). These changes affect both the collective work sphere (recruitment, emergence of new occupations, training, tools and practices, forms of action, etc.) and the individual work sphere (approaches and sense of commitment and motivations, aspirations and careers, etc.). This affects the aid actors’ representations, motivations and work practices as they are incessantly called into question, fundamentally or more superficially and in more or less quick succession.

44Essentially, aid actors have to contend with trade-offs to be made between strategic directions: either technocratic and quantitative or concerted and qualitative. The first path is supposed to strengthen the organisations by fully integrating them into the aid system, albeit at the risk of some industrialisation. The second path embraces the aim of experimentation and innovation in practices that will mark out the organisations’ contributions, albeit at the risk of marginalisation on the aid market.

45Hence all the institutions and actors working in the “development factory”, despite the distortions and dilemmas discussed, continue to have a shared and lasting interest, as pointed up by Berque back in 1965, in keeping the international aid model going by undertaking to perpetuate it in a self-sustaining dynamic, paradoxically despite awareness of its limitations.

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1 This article has been published in French as an introduction to Volume No. 241 of the Revue Internationale des Études du Développement entitled “L’aide internationale au développement. Acteurs, normes et pratiques” published in 2020. This publication followed the international conference “International Aid Actors: Towards which Knowledge, Commitments and Expertise?” held by the Les Afriques dans le Monde (LAM) Joint Research Unit (UMR) (IEP-Bordeaux/University of Bordeaux Montaigne), the Développement et Sociétés Joint Research Unit (University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/IRD) and NGO GRET in Bordeaux on 11 and 12 September 2017. The conference was co-chaired by the UNESCO Chair in “Training Sustainable Development Professionals", University of Bordeaux Montaigne/LAM, and the UNESCO Chair in “Shared Development Challenges: Know, Understand, Act”, University of Paris 1 - Sorbonne Institute of Development Studies (IEDES). We thank Pierre Janin, Senior Researcher at the IRD, for his invaluable comments, which significantly improved this paper.

2 International organisation, government, non-governmental organisation (NGO), corporation or consulting firm, local authority, expert, volunteer, local association or aid recipient, etc.

3 The formulation of clear goals and targets, responsibility for delivering on them and acceptance of potential sanctions in the event of non-compliance with commitments ties in with the institutional definition of the concept of “accountability” proposed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This term will not be used here.

4 A participant asks, “Do we make aid more effective for the end recipient by adopting new ways of doing things? Is foreign aid really playing its role? […] Do we need to find something else?” (Darbon, 2018, p. 71).

5 New Public Management is a form of public management based, among others, on a results-based culture and private sector practices and tools.

6 These statuses, especially that of voluntary worker (called “volontaire” in French, this status is governed by a particular regulation in the French context, different from other volunteers – called “bénévole” – whose situation is not or is only vaguely formalised), are not eligible for worker rights or, later, unemployment benefits. In large NGOs (such as Humanity & Inclusion, Doctors Without Borders and Action Against Hunger), voluntary workers receive social security coverage in addition to an allowance for their local living expenses; during their mission abroad, they receive a non-wage allowance equivalent to the minimum monthly wage paid in to an account in France.

7 Employees, freelancers, consultants/experts, interns, voluntary workers and volunteers, and expatriate and/or national staff.

8 European Union, United States and Japan.

9 For example, Coordination Sud.

10 For example, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes International Cooperation Support Network (RESACOOP) and the Aquitaine Network for Development and International Solidarity (RADSI).

11 For example, from 2001 to 2011, the France Volontaires association gathered accounts from 9,615 international exchange and solidarity voluntary workers who had travelled worldwide working with different international aid missions. These accounts are available on:

12 Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, UN Inter-Agency Secretariat for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction

13 See, for example, De Montjou (2018).

14 Like the increasingly explicit objective to curb migration flows from aid recipient countries. Since 2004, Development Assistance Committee (CAD) countries can factor in expenditure on refugee and asylum seeker reception over the last 12 months into the calculation of their annual aid.

15 See

16 For example, ASSO (Action des Salarié-e-s du Secteur Associatif), created in 2010, is a union affiliated with Union Syndicale Solidaires, which fights violations of labour legislation in the association sector by means of various local and national actions and campaigns.

17 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs such as ENDA, Eau Vive and GRET are among the structures with a long history of employing national managers.

18 This study explores in detail the realities of a volunteer outreach programme set up by UNHCR Lebanon in 2014. It shows how the labour market makes use of these insecure positions.

19 Change-based approaches are a set of tools and methods used to plan, monitor and evaluate actions designed to support processes for change by placing the emphasis on the actors and their interactions. They encourage the actors concerned to consider their vision of a common future and their respective positions and contributions to attain this vision. They are designed to facilitate an analysis of change with a long-term outlook and a framework further facilitating learning among project and programme stakeholders. The French F3E multi-actor network of NGOs, local government bodies and public establishments has been testing these change-based approaches in ten countries since 2014. Today, many other sectors such as research and health are finding themselves having to work with these new approaches based on theories of change.

20 Excerpt from the address by the President of RADSI Nouvelle-Aquitaine, International Conference Proceedings, op. cit., p. 9.

21 Ibid, p. 11.

22 In France, the imminent entry into force of the Action Plan for Business Growth and Transformation (PACTE Act enacted in May 2019) heralds the emergence of a new aid actor (the social enterprise), which is rocking the not-for-profit associations due to its ability to raise funds from private companies, but also uncertainty over real motives.

23 Such as practised by the European Commission for DEVCO (International Cooperation and Development) aid and ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations). See (accessed in October 2019).

24 NGO ENDA Europe went bankrupt in 2017.

25 In 2017, for example, Centre Bioforce Afrique was opened in Dakar by the parent company in Lyon.

26 Dubbed the “humanitarian-development nexus”, this vision, reactivated by the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in the shape of the “Grand Bargain”, advocates putting in place a common work frame for humanitarian and development actors to best provide for the “safety, dignity and ability to thrive” of those who are most vulnerable and at risk (UN, 2016).

27 Among others, the articles in: “International development aid actors, norms, and practices”, Revue Internationale des Études du Développement”, Volume 241, Issue 1, 2020.

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Anne Le Naëlou

Anne Le Naëlou is Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and member of the Development and Societies Joint Research Unit (P1-IRD). Her research focuses on transformations in development aid and international solidarity interventions and institutions as well as on the sector's professional and social practices and its actors’ trajectories. She is founder and director of the M1-M2 course on “Crises: Emergency Interventions and Actions” at the Sorbonne Institute of Economic and Social Development Studies (IEDES) and steers a number of social sciences courses. She holds the UNESCO Chair in “Shared Development Challenges: Know, Understand, Act” and participates in various think-tank networks on developments in the aid and international solidarity field.
Recent publications
Le Naëlou, A. (2015). Analyse de pratiques professionnelles dans le champ du développement : quelles mutations à l’œuvre  ?. Working Papers, 1, 1-9.
Le Naëlou, A. (2014). ONG. In Pfefferkorn, R., & Bihr, A. (Eds.). Dictionnaire des inégalités (272-273). Armand Colin.
Le Naëlou, A. (2013). Parcours de jeunes diplômés dans le champ du développement : “miroirs” d’un secteur qui change. Sociologies pratiques, 27(2), 43-57.

Elisabeth Hofmann

Elisabeth Hofmann is Associate Professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne and the Institute of Planning, Tourism and Urbanisation (IATU). She is a member of the research laboratory Les Afriques dans le Monde (LAM) and holds the UNESCO Chair in "Training Sustainable Development Professionals". Having trained as a development socio-economist, she is in charge of the "International Solidarity and Sustainable Development Project Manager" professional degree and teaches professional master's courses. Her research focuses mainly on French-speaking Africa regarding the processes of mainstreaming gender into projects and engaging actors in fighting gender inequalities.
Recent publications
Hofmann, E. (2019). Staging Bodies: Learning through Feminist Activism: Analysis of Points Emerging from Actions by La Barbe and Femen in France. The European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 10(1), 65-76.
Hofmann, E. (2015). Comment évaluer la contribution des actions de développement en matière de genre au changement social ?. In Aberlen, E., Bédécarrats, F., & Boisteau, C. (Eds.). Analyser, suivre et évaluer sa contribution au changement social : donner du sens à la mesure des pratiques de solidarité internationale et de coopération décentralisée. Études de l’AFD, 2, 67-78.
Hofmann, E., & Westerveld, R. (2014). Mesurer l’immesurable et rendre visible pour mieux agir : les observatoires de genre entre enjeux opérationnels et politiques. In Guétat-Bernard, H. (Ed.). Féminin-Masculin : genre et agriculture familiales (127-136). Éditions Quae.

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Larissa Kojoué

Larissa Kojoué graduated from the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Bordeaux in 2013. As a young Cameroonian political science researcher, she focuses on public HIV/AIDS action to analyse the public and social changes underway in Cameroonian society. Her fields of interest are public action, global health, citizenship, gender and sexuality, government transformations, and digital cultures.
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